With their gadgetry, sexploits and one-liners, the bombastic likes of James Bond tend to trivialize the spy "game" of the Cold War era. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy proves decisively that the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings between Soviet and Western spies don't need exaggerated silliness to make them engrossing.
Based on a 1974 John le Carre novel, which was previously best known as the basis for a British TV show from the era starring Alec Guinness, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's effort deftly maneuvers through a complex whodunnit. A game cast of Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik play key roles in an ever-shifting shell game of moles, cheats and divided loyalties bought and sold in backroom deals.
The plot is a mess, and not easy to understand in a single viewing. The pacing and performances help keep you involved even if the circuitous storylines lose you. Superb ensemble acting relays the mounting stakes as the tide ebbs and flows in and out of the offices of MI6, which its operatives appropriately refer to as "The Circus."
Although the dense material would probably be better suited to an HBO series treatment in the vein of "The Wire," the film does an excellent job of racing through mental chess matches between formidable foes. It convinced me that the Cold War provided the hidden playing field for one of the greatest shows on earth.